Earlier this month, I taught the last class of a 3-month online course for women professors called The Feminar. Over Skype, I asked each woman in the class to talk about the greatest lesson the class had to teach. Each one replied with a different version of the same answer: “I learned to walk my own way.”
As academics, we work within a system that allows us to learn from others: mentors, supervisors, dissertation advisors, chairpersons, and deans. Then there is the larger context for our work: editors, publishers, readers, and the wider circle of the “field” itself. Even within our work, we look to those who have gone before, responding and critiquing and refining their arguments, theories, and conclusions.
But at some point, if we are to claim our own voice in our writing and stake a claim in our own research, we must leave the teachers behind and walk our own path.
Let me share a story about what that means.
One morning, just after dawn on a humid and milky early summer day, (I’d been up early to write before teaching a summer school class), I saw a tuft of grass waving outside my window. I stopped. Looked closely. And that’s when I saw Martin Luther King, Jr.
No, I wasn’t having a nervous break. Martin Luther King, Jr., is the name my daughter gave the turtle that had appeared in our back yard over a year before. And like the real MLK, we’d thought he was gone forever.
So I yelled, “Lily! Martin Luther King, Jr. is in the back yard!”
Lily petted MLK. We noticed his shell was dry and white around the edges. I thought he might be thirsty. We got him a plate of water. And we let him be.
I had thought a lot about the turtle in the year since he first appeared. How much I needed to cultivate his qualities of slowness and groundedness in myself and in my work.
I had tended to be a fire starter, a hawk, a high flyer, a bouncing rabbit. I liked to rise. I liked to soar. I liked to write fast, teach hard, and push through. It was what I had been taught by my philosopher mother and by mentors who neglected their own self-care for the sake of their work.
After giving MLK some water, I headed out for my morning walk in the neighborhood. Two doors down, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a rabbit. I smiled to myself. I had tried for many years to be more turtle, but my heart still beat to the rhythm of rabbit. When would I learn to walk to my own rhythm?
This is the thing about being human: we are never really one thing. The animal world, like academe, is divided into species and disciplines. This teaches us a quality of unity. Even when people ask us what we do, we often answer by naming our discipline: 19th Century British Literature, Mechanical Engineering, Developmental Psychology. But we must remember that there is a difference between what we do and who we are.
We can never really become our teachers; we only learn from them, model ourselves after them, emulate them as we learn to walk in our own truth, whether we crawl or hop or scurry.
Sometimes we decide how to walk. We make a writing plan. We commit to it. We practice discipline. We make a habit. We say, “This is what I’m going to do,” and we do it.
Sometimes our walk gets decided for us. We get a phone call from an editor. We have to hurry. The time has come. We respond. We take care of things. We show up. “I’m right here,” we say, and we mean it.
To be human means choosing to walk in truth. Choosing to speed up or slow down. Choosing to act or (this is hard for many academics) do nothing. Sometimes, when we are uncertain, the choice we make is to wait. See. Do nothing. In the nothing can come the clarity of knowing. A presence. A being. A being human.
Some Native peoples say that we are not born human, but it is something we become. It takes time. We need teachers, both human and animal. We need to practice watching them with digital zoom. We need to practice walking their walk.
And then we begin to walk our own walk. Standing up. Balancing between the discipline of planning and the response of presence. Moving beyond standing it to standing up.
Just because you can stand it (the pressure to publish, the meetings, the politics, the teaching overload) doesn’t make you an academic. You must learn to stand up and walk on your own two feet (claim your voice in your writing and your department, teach in your own unique way, do the work you were always meant to do).
And sometimes, that means walking away from a mentor or a teacher. With dignity. With strength. With clarity. With honor. With grace. In truth.
Cassie Premo Steele, Ph.D., is the author of 13 books and a writing coach who specializes in working with women academics from around the world. Her unique course, The Feminar, begins in August, and registration is now open. For more information, visit http://www.cassiepremosteele.com/the-feminar.html
The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Text and Academic Authors Association. Read more about TAA guest posts here.